TUNIS, Tunisia, Dec. 21 (UPI) -- The favorite to win Tunisia's first democratic election, presidential hopeful Beji Caid Essebsi, claimed victory not long after the polls closed on Sunday in the country's first-ever democratic election. But interim leader President Moncef Marzouki says it is too early to declare a winner.
Marzouki has served as the nation's interim leader since Tunisia's ousted their leader in 2011 in what became a precipitous moment at the outset of the Arab Spring. Tunisia has witnessed periods of upheaval and episodes of terrorism during Marzouki's stopgap leadership.
Essebsi, an establishment politician from the secular-leaning Nidaa Tounes party, promised experience and stability -- a message that's resonated with Tunisians tired of turmoil. Essebsi enjoys particularly strong support among Tunisia's wealthier populations along the coast. He served in the nation's previous two independence governments.
"I dedicate my victory to the martyrs of Tunisia," Essebsi said in front of his supporters during a televised speech. "I thank Marzouki, and now we should work together without excluding anyone."
A spokesperson for Marzouki, a longtime human rights campaigner who was exiled during the rule of Tunisia's now deposed president Ben Ali, said there is not yet a clear winner.
With Marzouki allied with a number of Islamist-leaning groups, some of have tried to paint the election as a contest between Islamists and secularists. But Marzouki has insisted that the real contrast is between democrats and non-democrats -- arguing that support for Essebsi is support of the authoritarian ways of the old regime.
"My vote is for Marzouki. He represents the revolution while Essebsi represents the old regime," Mohamed Othmani, a 41-year-old Ministry of Transportation employee, told Bloomberg News while visiting his local polling place. "If we bring back someone from the old regime, then we're back to square one."
"Essebsi will be the winner," countered Tunis voter Kawthar Merwani. "Tunisia needs a statesman who can lead the country out of chaos."
State news agencies reported a voter turnout of 47 percent. Essebsi won the first round vote with 39 percent.